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Courthouse ownership debate continues Team warns Falls not to take titles

A development team designing a new city courthouse and Police Headquarters put the city on notice in May that it was in danger of breaching its contract with the team if it continued to try to acquire north Main Street properties directly for the project.

In two letters to the city sent in May and earlier this month, leaders from a team led by Ciminelli Development Co. and Largo Real Estate Advisors warned Mayor Vince Anello that they would consider legal action against the city if it continued to try to take title to parcels where a courthouse will be located.

The issue has not yet been resolved, but the Ciminelli-Largo team said last week it would continue to close on contracts with the property owners and would hold the titles until a nonprofit organization is formed by the city that could eventually own the building.

The Ciminelli-Largo team this month closed on the first of the properties, the Bible Way Church of God in Christ building at 924 South Ave.

The development team hopes to begin demolition on the courthouse site by September.

Anello and the city's lead attorney, acting Corporation Counsel Damon DeCastro, have said they want the city to take title to nine privately owned properties the city needs to build the courthouse. But the Ciminelli-Largo team wants its corporation to hold the properties until the city forms a nonprofit local development corporation that will own the property.

In a letter dated July 3, Terrence M. Gilbride, a Hodgson Russ attorney working for the Ciminelli team, described Anello's efforts to obtain title to the land as "futile" and said he would seek an injunction against the city if it attempted to take the title to the land.

Anello said he wants the city to hold the title to the properties so that it can use city staff to prepare the bid specifications for demolition work on the land.

"We're paying for the lawyers. We're paying for the real estate transaction," Anello said. "We're paying for the property, but the property belongs to them?"

The city's development services agreement with Ciminelli-Largo grants "the developer the exclusive right to acquire title to the selected site and to develop and contract the project." However, DeCastro has pointed to language in sale contracts for most of the properties that gives the city the option to obtain the titles.

The Ciminelli-Largo team believes it will be more costly for the city to separate the demolition work from the rest of the project. Anello disagrees.

"You can't go back and renegotiate the deal," Gilbride told city leaders. "That's what we have going on here on this."

Anello said he is disappointed that the city has to reimburse the Ciminelli-Largo team for Gilbride's work to object to the city's actions.

The land issue has dominated public discussions about the courthouse for several months and has been a source of frustration for the development team and city leaders. At a public meeting last week, both city leaders and the developers expressed dissatisfaction over how the project is proceeding.

"I've done projects all over the state," Ciminelli chief Paul Ciminelli said during the Council meeting. "Why is this the most difficult municipality I've ever dealt with?"

Ciminelli said he believes the relationship between the administration and his team could have been better had the city appointed a single staff member to serve as a liaison for the project from the beginning.

"We weren't the mayor's first choice, and he lets us know that repeatedly," Ciminelli said. "We were selected in a very open, public, transparent process . . . We're doing everything as per our development services agreement, and yet we continue to get questioned by the administration on a daily basis. It's very counterproductive, and it's really very distracting."

Anello, who refused to sign the contract with the Ciminelli-Largo team, said he has continued to question the process because he doesn't believe the contract is good for the city.

He said the city's attorneys have served as the city's contact for the Ciminelli-Largo team.

"They're characterizing the questions as being obstructionist," said Anello, noting that he has gotten little support from the City Council in his questions. "Instead, some members of the Council have joined the development team in attacking this administration."

Councilman Charles Walker, who withdrew a proposal to authorize the city to obtain the properties last week, expressed concern that a lack of communication has been a source of friction.

"I think the issue is a lot of times, there is a breakdown of what's going on," Walker said.

Councilman Lewis Rotella, who signed the development services agreement, also expressed concern about the pace of the project.

"I think there's problems with both sides. It don't take two years to build a courthouse," Rotella said. "You tell me one project where it takes two years to break ground? None."

e-mail: djewell@buffnews.com

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